Posted: 01/25/2003


The 2003 Sundance Film Festival Diary

by Paul Fischer

Exclusive: If it’s January it must be Sundance, and from now till the end of the Festival, Paul Fischer will be updating on the movies he’s seeing, the stars and the atmosphere.

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Opening Night: Sundance Returns Bigger Than Ever—Confidence A Smash!

As far as independent films go, they don’t get a better showcase than here at Sundance, the world’s foremost indie Film Festival. Another year and it’s shaping up to be Sundance at its finest. Already In town are the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Billy Bob Thornton, and the press is having a field day. But the next 10 days or so will showcase some of the best films to emerge outside of mainstream Hollywood. That’s not to say moviegoers will be denied seeing a lot that is screened here, but others, as always, will appear on cable or video if they’re lucky. While the big players such as Miramax, Sony Classics, Paramount Classics, Lions Gate and others, proudly strut their stuff. It is going be one hell of a 100 days, as journalists like myself try and see as much as they can, while interviewing the stars and directors that are responsible for the odd cinematic jewel.

Such a jewel is Confidence, which was actually screened for the Festival’s volunteers but a handful of media was invited to check it out rather than see the opening night film [which will be screened for the press tomorrow morning]. But Confidence is a whopper of a film, a tautly crafted film noir thriller directed by a master of the genre, James Foley. The film tells of Jake (Edward Burns), a master con man who unwittingly swindles thousands of dollars from a major crime kingpin’s accountant. After offering to pull off an even bigger con in return, Jake and his crew must stay one step ahead of both the criminals and the cops to finally settle their debt. Fast, engaging and visually intoxicating, Confidence is a real classic of this under-utilized genre. Burns is terrific, his best performance to date, cool, dry and compelling, while as the dangerous gangster, Hoffman delivers a brazen performance, full of sustained comedy coupled with the right degree of chilling menace. But this is a Foley masterpiece, a wonderfully entertaining piece that is genuinely surprising and skillfully constructed. Confidence is destined to do well when Lions gate releases the film here in April; it’s a masterful and ingenious surprise. If the rest of Sundance is half as good as Confidence, then this writer has confidence that we’re in for a wonderful time.

Tomorrow, checking out the opening night film Levity, 28 Days Later and Aussie singing sensation Kate Ceberano performs at the opening day’s musical festivities on Main Street. Sundance, here we come!

Sundance—Day 1
As Sundance moves briskly along, Paul Fischer reports there’s something to ‘Sing’ about while for ex-child star Culkin, the ‘Party’ is well and truly over.

Amidst the bells and gongs of cell phones everywhere here in Park City, the Festival is in full swing. As I remind myself every year I come to this idyllic resort, the films are what we’re here for; everything else is an ancillary bonus. Day 1 began with a promising start with the press screening of opening night film Levity, directed by screenwriter Ed Soloman [who scripted Men in Black]. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a man who is free after serving 19 years for killing a teenager during an attempted robbery. After nearly two decades of staring at his victim’s face on a newspaper clipping in his cell, the paroled man attempts to find redemption, in the form of a mysterious minister (Morgan Freeman) and two needy women played by Kirsten Dunst and Holly Hunter). An overly sombre film for opening night one might think, but a graceful, poetic character study, beautifully realised by Soloman and masterfully acted by a superb cast. Though regrettably similar to Monsters Ball, Levity works on its own level, as a powerful and evocative study of redemption and growth. Thornton reminds one of how great an actor he is, subtle and nuanced, and Dunst is also terrific here. A sad but unflinchingly honest and rewarding film, which should do well in, limited release.

After racing the Park City cold to venture off visiting publicists, an adventure in itself, it was time to be well and truly confronted by the latest film from British director Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later. It can easily be described as Boyle’s answer to the zombie genre as only this dynamic director can do. This often visceral and strangely hypnotic drama tells of a powerful virus that escapes from a British research facility. Transmitted in a drop of blood and devastating within seconds, the virus locks those infected into a permanent state of murderous rage. Within 28 days the country is overwhelmed and a handful of survivors begin their attempts to salvage a future, little realising that the deadly virus is not the only thing that threatens them once they arrive, seemingly, to safety. Despite intense moments of graphic violence, its opening images pave the way for a film that is unusual for a director such as Boyle. Energetic and pumped up, sharply cut together and consistently entertaining, 28 Days Later is a hypnotic and fast-paced work, despite a tendency to fall apart towards the end. But even that doesn’t matter. This is pure cinema, inventive, exciting and masterfully directed, that puts the horror/zombie genre on an entirely new level.

It was time for a breather and the opening musical celebration on Main Street, featured a virtuoso performance by Australia’s own Kate Ceberano, performing with the Mark Isham Band. Hundreds gathered to hear Ceberano strut her stuff as the 2003 Sundance Film Festival was launched for the public with this free outdoor concert. Much dancing was seen and the music was fabulous, the perfect break from cinematic zombies.

Back for the final screening of the night and the perfect way to end the first day with the world premiere of The Singing Detective, directed by Keith Gordon, based on the late Dennis Potter’s screenplay. It is no surprise that Detective polarised the packed press in attendance, and will continue to do so well in release. But that’s fine, because truly great art has the propensity to divide. The Singing Detective is quite simply an audacious masterwork, a stylish, visually hypnotic film that will serve as a reminder that Robert Downey Jnr is one of the great talents of his generation. In the title role, Downey is the heart, soul and emotional breadth of this film. His virtuoso performance is the glue that holds Gordon’s vision together, in the role of a hospitalised author whose skin disease parallels an abusive youth. The film’s energetic fantasy music numbers enhance narrative, theme and character and all gel beautifully. As his psychiatrist, Mel Gibson is magnificent, giving his best performance in over a decade. A remarkable, brave and intelligent achievement, The Singing Detective is unique, uncompromising and darkly comic.

Day 2
A promising start with the powerful Spanish drama Mondays in the Sun, an outstanding acquisition in the US from Lion’s Gate. The always-superb Javier Bardem stars in this fine drama that revolves around the impact of the closure of a major shipyard in a small Spanish town. Fluidly directed by Fernando León de Aranoa, Mondays is both gently funny and genuinely poignant as it explores the impact of unemployment on a microcosm of Spanish society. Bardem gives an arresting performance in this quietly engrossing drama.

Time to do some interviews for the rest of the day before returning to the screenings. It was a pleasure to chat to Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman about his work on Levity. A man who freely admits to hating the cold, Freeman, who is about to jet off to Paris to work on Luc Besson’s production, Danny the Dog starring Jet Li in the title role. “Luc mentioned that they were going to shoot in London or Paris. I told them if they chose Paris I’d do it”, he told me, laughingly. Freeman also has high hopes for Dreamcatcher, saying how much fun it was to work with Larry Kasdan. A gentleman and a great actor.

Then it was time to chat to the cast of Singing Detective. Robert Downey Jnr was funny and forthcoming about the parallels between his hallucinatory character and his past drug problems. More on Downey later. Also chatting was the beautiful Katie Holmes, at Sundance with both Singing Detective and the delightful Pieces of April which I’ll get to later. Surprisingly, Holmes did admit that this may not be the final season of Dawson’s Creek after all. “No decisions have been made.”

Two very different films to end the second day here at Park City. First was Party Monster, starring a now adult Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green in the true story of 90s New York underground party kingpins Michael Alig and James St. James, whose drug-infested antics come crashing down as a result of a tragic and futile murder. A wonderful story has been wasted on this loathsome, ineptly acted and simplistically directed piece of cinematic hogwash, which is puerile and pretentious. A film that attempts to get away with being clever is merely outrageous for outrageousness sake. As for Culkin, he was a cute child actor with no real talent, a fact reinforced by his one-note performance. Green is slightly worse if that’s possible. A film whose central characters remain consistently non-empathetic makes for poor drama, and Party Monster is an example of a film which lacks narrative cohesion and any real sense of character. A truly awful film and a waste of time.

The complete opposite can be said of Neil LaBute’s masterpiece, The Shape of Things, based on his play. What starts out as a romantic comedy about a shy security guard who falls for a rebellious art student, is magnificently turned on its head in the most deliciously unpredictable and savage last act of a film seen in recent memory. To tell more would be giving too much away, but LaBute intelligently and masterfully explores the nature of art within the milieu of contemporary relationships. Rachel Weisz gives a monumental performance, and is well partnered by Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller who are all sublime, in a script that is brilliant, hilarious and ultimately complex and unpredictable.

Day 3
Documentaries rarely get as much coverage as they deserve so it was refreshing to see one that is as good and compelling as Stevie. In 1995 director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) returned to rural Southern Illinois to reconnect with Stevie Fielding, a troubled young boy he had been an ‘Advocate Big Brother’ to ten years earlier. He began a film, a search, to discover not only what had happened to Stevie over the past ten years but to understand the forces that had shaped his entire life. Part way through the filming, Stevie is arrested and charged with a serious crime that tears his family apart. What was to be a modest profile turns into a intimate four and half year chronicle of Stevie, his broken family, the criminal justice system and the filmmaker himself, as they all struggle with what Stevie has done and who he has become. As much a powerful comment on the art of documentary cinema and the nature of subjectivity, Stevie is a deeply moving and powerful portrait of a man initially unwilling to connect with a mother who abused him as a young child. The film raises questions about responsibility and is an emotionally charged and extraordinary film that is complex and richly profound and moving. As it’s getting a release, Stevie is a must.

Pieces of April was digitally shot in 10 days on location in New York and is one of the treasured highlights of Sundance. The film revolves around April Burns (Katie Holmes) who invites her family to Thanksgiving dinner at her teeny apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. As they make their way to the city from suburban Pennsylvania, April must endure a comedy of errors—like finding out her oven doesn’t work—in order to pull off the big event. Gently comic and ultimately moving, Pieces of April is smartly directed by a major new director in Peter Hedges, and features a star-turning performance by Holmes, who has a flair for comedy that shines through here. Beautifully constructed, the film also boasts a wonderful performance by Patricia Clarkson as April’s cancer-stricken mother, but this is not a depressing film, but rather a hopeful study in the fragility and importance of family. Captivating, funny and human, here is a film deserving of the widest possible audience.

The final film of the evening was the magnificent British drama, Song for a Raggy Boy. Based on a true story, this exquisite film boasts a masterful performance by Aidan Quinn in the story of one man’s courage to stand up and fight against the tough Catholic regime in a boys Irish Reformatory School in 1939. Unflinching in its savage honesty and deeply affecting, the film is even timelier given recent events, which makes the film all the more powerful. Beautifully realised, tough yet deeply human, the film is a reminder of Quinn’s much under-utilized talent. His performance matches the greatness of this film.

Sundance continues tomorrow when I talk to Aidan Quinn, Dustin Hoffman and Ed Burns, see a movie or two and check out a party or two in the process.

Days 4 & 5
Sundance continues amidst unseasonably sunny weather and a diverse plethora of interesting films and talent to match. First up was Thom Fitzgerald’s hauntingly moving The Event. Fitzgerald, who won acclaim for The Hanging Garden, returns to Sundance with this quietly evocative and thought-provoking drama. The film centres around a series of unexplained deaths that occur among the gay community in New York’s fashionable Chelsea district. Nick, a district attorney investigating the most recent case, a suspicious apparent suicide, and her interviews with friends and family of the deceased trigger extensive and intricately interwoven flashbacks that reveal surprising facts about the man’s life and death. Initially, it is unclear what Fitzgerald’s intentions are but as his complex narrative elucidates the director’s clear concerns, what emerges is a deeply powerful and personal film about relationships, including that between mother and son. Featuring an array of exquisite performances from the great Olympia Dukakis who shines as the victim’s mother, through to subtle, beautiful work by the likes of Parker Posey, Canada’s wonderful Don McKellar and a vivid Sarah Polley. This is Fitzgerald’s most honest and gratifying work to date. It’s unfortunate that small films such as this tend to get lost at a crowded festival such as Sundance, especially when cast and director appear unavailable for publicity. But such is the disadvantage of showcasing a film at one of North America’s most popular festivals. One can only hope that a distributor will discover it and help share this gem with a wide audience.

It was time to catch up with Aidan Quinn, back at Sundance for the third time with the extraordinary Song for a Raggy Boy, which was having its world premiere here. Quinn, with whom I spoke here a few years ago for Songcatcher, admitted he was no longer bitter about being shunned by mainstream Hollywood. “As long as I can get great roles on stage or screen, I’m content”, he said. Nothing coming up film wise, but a return to the stage is imminent, he confirmed. Time to race off and catch up with some of the cast of Confidence. Promised interview with Dustin Hoffman never transpired, nor was director James Foley available, but Ed Burns, Paul Giamatti and Andy Garcia spoke about their work on the grifter film noir thriller. Burns admitted that he is putting his directing on hold to concentrate more on acting, while Garcia talked up his directorial debut starring Dustin Hoffman as an aging Myer Lansky in Cuba drama.

Back to one more screening before hitting the parties. The Technical Writer is an oddity, a weird concoction that doesn’t quite work but is nonetheless interesting. Tatum O’Neal returns to the big screen as a bored housewife who attempts to lure an agoraphobic technical writer (played by the film’s co-writer Michael Harris) out of his apartment, into the heart of New York City and her bed. O’Neal is beautiful and sexy as the sexually aggressive seductress, and Harris is strong, but the film is uneven and lacks any clear sense of direction or sense of character. Visually, the film’s grainy tone tends to give the film an uninteresting visual flair, but it is also clear that director Scott Saunders has a future given more interesting scripts and money at his disposal. The Technical Writer is an interesting and quite watchable failure.

It was time to hit two parties. Now in order to do the party scene one needs constant stamina which is why this particular journalist goes infrequently. The hub of activity is Main Street, the heart of Park City nightlife, crowded with wannabes, photographers, journalists and celebrities. Some reporters may attend as many as four or five parties, but two was quite enough. The Showtime party was first stop. Overcrowded to excess, in order to go celeb watching, the press was required to go to a balcony on top of the trendy Riverhorse Café. There were some stars to be seen. Managed a quick hi to, yes, the one and only Pauly Shore, attempting to reinvent himself in the mock documentary, You’ll Never Wiez in This Town Again, which he wrote and directed. Also managed a quick hi to Salma Hayek, who was presenting her directorial debut The Maldonado Miracle. The petite actress was complaining of being tired, understandably, but made my day when she told me I was cool. She MUST have been tired. Sitting in the background was her beau Ed Norton.

Also present at the party was Illeana Douglas, here as director of the short film Devil Talk. A hilarious little film about Satan’s search for a publicist. Douglas told me she was developing the short into a feature, has left LA for the Big Apple and is shooting a number of episodes of Law and Order SVU.

The next party was for the premiere of Neil LaBute’s wonderful The Shape of Things. Briefly caught up with beautiful Rachel Weisz who was there with boyfriend Darren Aronofsky. Had a long chat with Aussie director Gregor Jordan, in town for Buffalo Soldiers. He confirmed things were moving ahead for Ned Kelly. “Heath is really amazing in the film, I think people will be surprised.” Gregor said he intends moving permanently to LA sooner than later.

For me, the party was over by 1am, about to face another day in front of a big screen.

First film of the next day was a Festival highlight: the US premiere of Jim Sheridan’s stunning In America. Newcomer Paddy Considine is a real find as family patriarch Johnny who along with wife Sarah, [Samantha Morton] emigrate with their two young daughters, from Ireland to New York City so that Johnny can pursue his dream of becoming an actor. They wind up living in a run-down apartment but, using their resourcefulness, resolve to make the very most of their new life. A truly magnificent film, Sheridan explores the purity of childhood against the backdrop of the realities of immigration. The two children who play the sisters—Sarah and Emma Bolger—are nothing short of extraordinary, in this emotive, captivating and exquisite film. In America is the finest example of strong narrative cinema, rich in character and layered themes. In all, a perfect and captivating masterpiece from one of Britain’s great filmmakers.

It was time to hit Main Street for a few interviews, beginning with the gentlemanly Javier Bardem, who spoke passionately about Mondays in the Sun as well as The Dancer Upstairs. From Bardem to ingenious comic Eddie Griffin, whose Dysfunctional Family was premiering here. Hilariously politically incorrect, Griffin was unapologetic and confirmed that he was preparing for the sequel.

After Eddie I caught up with two very distinctive directors: Britain’s Danny Boyle, who spoke about the problems with The Beach, amongst other things, and the remarkable Neil LaBute, who had plenty to say about his Shape of Things. By the way, the play is about to open in Australia.

One last film of the day and what a find: American Splendor, an original mix of fiction and reality illuminates the life of comic book hero everyman Harvey Pekar, magnificently played by Paul Giamatti. Audacious, hilarious but real, American Splendor is one of those films that comes from nowhere and into the hearts and minds of Sundance audiences. A clever and original film, one can only hope this dark comedy sees the broader light of day. It was the perfect way to end the day.

Still To Come At Sundance: Chatting With Tatum O’Neal, Jim Sheridan, Matt Dillon And Many More. So Watch This Space.

As Sundance slowly but steadily begins to come to its wintry close, one tends to try and slow down and today was slow but steady. It began with a chat with wonderful Irish director Jim Sheridan. A gentleman, a nice guy and a major talent. We talked about the personal connection he had with the glorious In America, his relationship with Daniel Day Lewis and he confirmed his next project would either be a new film of I, Claudius or a fresh take on the gangster genre possibly with Day-Lewis. Sheridan, who hadn’t made a film since The Boxer, said he was itching to return to work on one of the two this year.

Few journalists turned up to cover the Tatum O’Neal film The Technical Writer, so the publicist, in her infinite wisdom, decided to pair her up with the writer and director. Suffice it to say, this journalist was none too happy so declined to stay, knowing what a dead interview we would have under those circumstances. More interesting was catching up with Buffalo Soldiers director Gregor Jordan who talked about the film’s delayed release and Ned Kelly, which won’t open here in rhe States till September, but Australia will get to see it in March.

A bit of a break until it was time to check out a film that was apparently generating buzz, the odd and rather woeful Girls will be Girls. The film tells of three actresses at various places on the Hollywood food chain who navigate the minefield of love, aging, and ambition. Not too mention the fact that they’re all played by men. Incomprehensible, overtly garish and utterly pretentious, Girls will be Girls succeeds in being an embarrassment of mediocrity and is unlikely to find a broad audience outside of gay film festivals. Even its core audience may discover that they’ve seen it all before.

The final film of the evening was a major surprise and easily one of the best films at Sundance thus far: A Foreign Affair. This wonderful charmer casts David Arquette and Tim Blake-Nelson as two brothers who need household help on their farm after their mother passes away. They decide to join a romance tour to Russia to find and bring home a traditionally minded wife. One wife for both, that is. Partly comic in an absurdist way and partly very human, A Foreign Affair is a wry comment on the whole notion of romance tours. Yet at the same writer Geert Heetebrij and director Helmut Schleppi have also crafted a succinct film about brotherly love, dependence, patriarchy and marriage, in a briskly directed romantic comedy/drama that takes audiences by surprise. Beautifully shot on location in St Petersburg, the film boasts memorable work by Blake-Nelson and Arquette who have never been better as they are here. Exemplified by a soft musical score, A Foreign Affair is one of the sleeper hits at Sundance. It is surprises such as this that makes Sundance such a pleasurable experience.

The Final Days, Awards And Postscript
The final three days here at Park City were filled with interviews and a plethora of diverse films, while the weather remained appropriately gorgeous. First up as I entered the seventh day of Sundance, was an interview with character actor Paul Giamatti, star of American Splendor, which would eventually take out the Grand Jury prize for dramatic feature. Giamatti totally embodied the character of real-life pessimistic comic book creator Harvey Pekar, in this sometimes bleak, dark comedy about isolation and the need for acceptance. The actor and I spoke at length about this extraordinary film in competition and how he felt it unlikely at the time he shot it, that it would ever see the light of day. We also talked about Confidence, screening in Sundance, and the quirky British comedy Thunderpants, which is yet to find distribution here in the US.

While so much here at Sundance was defined by an artful sense of cinematic depression and intensity, relief was about to find itself at hand with the world premiere screening of The Hebrew Hammer, the screen’s first Jewish action hero, self-described as ‘the meanest Heb this side of Tel Aviv.’ Adam Goldberg plays Mordechai Jefferson Carver, a Jewish superhero assigned to save Hanukkah from an evil Santa Claus who has killed his goody two-shoes Santa dad with help from a grown up Tiny Tim, out of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Irreverent, hilarious and at times utterly brilliant, Jews and gentiles alike should eagerly embrace this wonderfully original comic gem with consistent gusto. When Goldberg’s Hebrew Hammer guns down a bar full of new-Nazis under the immortal phrase: “Shabbat Shalom motherfuckers”, you know you are in for one helluva ride. A masterful debut from first time writer/director Jonathan Kesselman, The Hebrew Hammer is broadly farcical, yet also slickly crafted. Goldberg is wry and comically understated in the title role, while Andy Dick is delightfully malevolent as the evil Santa. Great script and fluid direction make The Hebrew Hammer a must-see.

Another must-see celebrating its world premiere is Prey for Rock’n’ Roll, beautifully directed by Alex Steyermark. A stunning Gina Gershon stars in this rousing tale of Jacki and her all-girl rock and roll band, Clam Dandy, who are trying to make it in the LA club scene in the late 1980’s. After ten years of being ignored by record producers, Jacki and the band find hope in one producer who promises to see them play and consider them for a contract. Jacki resolves to play this one last gig and then throw in the towel if she does not find success. Personal tragedies, however, threaten to rip the band apart, rocking the foundation of friendship and trust the women have built together. Ultimately, the band must find its strength in the music that is their passion and the thread that holds them together, inspiring them to prevail. Prey for Rock ‘n’ Roll is a perfect example of classic narrative cinema, a rarity in the Hollywood scheme of things. Writers Cheri Lovedog and Robin Whitehouse created a collage of well-defined characters giving each her own, well-developed arc. Directed with a fearless energy by Steyermark, the film’s heart and soul remains the extraordinary Gershon, who manages to be funny, touching and sexy throughout. And she sings too, with power and grace. Prey for Rock ‘n’ Roll is a sexy, exhilarating ride of a movie that is destined for commercial glory.

Following the screening of Prey, I was due to interview Richard Day, director of Girls will be Girls, but he cancelled because he didn’t like my review of his film. A word of advice Richard: If you can’t stand the criticism, get out of the cinematic kitchen. So it was a nice to take a break before settling into Matt Dillon’s directorial debut, City of Ghosts. Dillon co-wrote this haunting drama with Barry Gifford which casts Dillon as a shady insurance scam artist who travels to Cambodia (also on the run from law enforcement in the U.S.) to collect his share in an insurance scam, but discovers more than he bargained for. Part thriller, part political drama and part romance, City of Ghosts beautifully and honestly explores Cambodia’s underbelly while at the same time bringing us a fine narrative which takes the viewer to unexpected and unpredictable places. A journey of self-discovery for Dillon as director, as well as his complex character, he shows tremendous visual skill and style in this compelling and hypnotic drama. Dillon’s future as director is well and truly assured.

Second last day at Sundance, and off at running with another tour-de-force performance by the extraordinary Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In the captivating Owning Mahowny, is based on the story of the largest one-man bank fraud in Canadian history. Hoffman is remarkable as a Loans Manager with: a gambling problem who has access to a multi-million dollar account and gets into a messy situation when his addiction gets out of control. From a taut screenplay by Maurice Chavet and meticulously directed by the ingenious Richard Kwietniowski who helmed Love and Death on Long Island, Owning Mahowny is a powerful and gripping study on the effects of obsession and addiction. A fast-paced and fascinating drama, Hoffman is wonderful at capturing this character’s intricacies down to the last detail. John Hurt is wonderful as the manager of the Atlantic City casino who encourages Hoffman’s Dan Mahowny in his addiction. Only Minnie Driver disappoints as the supportive girlfriend, but she is a minor flaw in an otherwise engrossing and captivating film.

Time to return to interview mode with Matt Dillon. Charming and personable, Dillon talked about the problems he had making City of Ghosts, his run-ins with meddling producers and financiers and the genesis of the project. We also chatted about his early days as an actor, and he mentioned an upcoming retrospective of his films at Hollywood’s Cinemateque early next month. For Dillon fans, this is a must. Then interviewed talented documentary director Steve James, whose poignant Stevie took out an award. James, whose previous credits include Hoop Dreams, talked honestly about the role of the documentary director and subject, which is ultimately a theme of Stevie. He also talked enthusiastically about his next project, a series of films about the immigrant experience called The New Americans. James is the series’ executive producer and he is currently directing one. He hopes the entire series will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival before screening on America’s PBS.

To the other extreme I had a drink with Hebrew Hammer director Jonathan Kesselman, who talked about his wacky comedy’s genesis, his walkabout trip to Australia where he is dying to return and his hope that his film will be seen as more than just a Jewish comedy. Amen to that! My final interview of the day was with a tired but always interesting Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who not only talked enthusiastically about Owning Mahowny, but also his next project, on Broadway in the revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night. If you’re in New York, this is a play worth while seeing. Hoffman also enthused about the star-studded Cold Mountain, which will open later this year.

I had a wonderful chat with Tim Blake Nelson. While he was munching on Buffalo Wings, the actor/director and I talked about a variety of subjects, from working in Russia on A Foreign Affair, through to Australian politics, his role in the upcoming Wonderland and his next directorial outing which is still officially unconfirmed but will mean a big budget and a very different direction for this wonderfully talented director and actor.

One last film was Alan Rudolph’s disappointing The Secret Lives of Dentists. Despite strong performances by Campbell Scott and Hope Davis, this depressing look at a marriage never quite locks one in. Based on Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief, the film centres on two dentists, married to each other [Scott and Davis] whose marriage is falling apart when one suspects the other of infidelity. A comment on the importance of communication in a relationship, ironically, Dentists has difficulty communicating specific ideas in a slowly-paced rather awkwardly staged piece that is disappointing from someone as visually arresting as director Rudolph. Instead, his latest film seems awkward and bland, and so pessimistic in tone that one cannot imagine the film appealing to a wide audience. Yet Scott is superb in a difficult and under-written role.

The last day at Sundance has arrived. Normally, like the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest, but I decided to tough out a trifecta of difficult yet richly rewarding films. First up was the gruelling but masterful documentary Capturing the Friedmans, certainly one of the most textured and compelling films of the year. Exquisitely directed by

Andrew Jarecki, the film tells of the Friedmans, a seemingly typical, upper-middleclass Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and his youngest son are arrested and charged with shocking and horrible crimes. Director Jarecki has directed here an intelligent, disturbing and unflinchingly honest film about normalcy, family, relationships, justice, guilt and innocence. He has provided us with no clear answers, there is no pap conclusion to his study of this tortured family, which makes this award-winning masterpiece all the more disturbing and powerful. This is a risky, provocative and beautifully put together film, which enables us to appreciate even more the power of the documentary.

Powerful on a different level is the visceral and remarkable Irreversible. From master French filmmaker Gaspar Noé, comes this thrilling and disturbing drama. On the surface, Irreversible is a revenge thriller revolving around the after-effects of as savage rape, shown in reverse order. But Noé challenges the audience with his stark visual imagery, sequences of savagery and brutality, yet ultimately a work of immeasurable beauty and cinematic poetry. His juxtaposition of images are a metaphor of the world we inhabit and while some may cower at two sequences in particular, stay with the film, because what it ultimately says, and how Noé says it, makes the first half of the film worth the anguish. As the rape victim, the exquisite Monica Bellucci gives an emotionally rich and haunting performance, as does the wonderful Vincent Cassel as her lover. Ferociously yet beautifully directed by Noé from his richly layered script, Irreversible is not a film for the faint-hearted, but intelligent and demanding audiences should find this film all the more satisfying and extraordinary.

A popular favourite to end up on was thirteen, a spellbinding debut from Catherine Hardwicke, who worked on the script initially written by gifted 13-year old Nikki Reed who also co-stars in this vivid portrait of adolescence, rebellion and family. In the film, a thirteen-year-old girl’s (Evan Rachel Wood) relationship with her single mother (Holly Hunter) is put to the test as she discovers drugs, sex, and petty crime in the company of her cool but troubled best friend (Reed). A complete twist on the conventional teen genre, Thirteen is brutally honest, as it captures teen angst in all its unflinching and unwavering honest. A remarkable script, engineered by one so young, the film’s centrepiece is a complex, monumental and pure performance by Wood, a star-on-the-rise with talent too match. Brave and uncompromising, Wood is superb in a complex role of a teenager torn between friendship and the ferocity of rebellion. Reed is also impressive as her dangerous best friend, and Hunter shines as the single mother desperately trying to keep her fractured family together. As much a look as the tragic extents to which teenagers crave to fit in, Thirteen is a superb human drama that takes chances and is all the more masterful as a result.

Thirteen was the perfect conclusion to this 10-day cinematic rollercoaster, which offered audiences a complete variety of demanding, entertaining and exhilarating films.

It has been quite a Festival. We are often reminded that Sundance is all about the filmmakers, which is true enough. Then why do some actors who come here, insist on acting like stars? Rather than supporting their films by granting interviews, this year more than ever, actors have cancelled interviews because being here is far too difficult such as the B-grade actor, whose brother is far more heavenly famous, who cancelled over 90% of his interviews and the recently arrested veteran actor who just didn’t turn up. There are the publicists, some of who make it a point to be difficult to those of us with a desire to do nothing more than spread the word about the film they are hired to represent. Of course most publicists are a joy to work with, while others need to realise that our job is to support these wonderful films.

Yet through all of this, Sundance remains a great haven for the risky, the exciting and the adventurous. Here some of the year’s freshest films were unspoiled, not all masterpieces, but each one a reminder that if you have a story to tell, no matter how bizarre or controversial, Sundance exists for you. For the dreamer that is one day a volunteer and the next, a director actor, I salute you. Till Sundance 2004, enjoy a movie that is challenging and rewarding.

The Award Winners.
The final night at Sundance is of course the Awards, and like the Festival as a whole, represent a diversity of talent and product. The drama “American Splendor” and documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” ended up winning the major awards. “American Splendor” tells of the everyday life of comic artist Harvey Pekar and his relationship with Joyce Brabner, who is just as depressed and co-dependent as he, but somehow the pair seem to make it through life, together, in this sometimes grimly comic but satisfying affair.

“Capturing the Friedmans” took the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary with its recounting of what happens to an upper middle class family when the father and son are arrested.

The Festival’s audience awards went to “The Station Agent” (a truly wonderful idiosyncratic comedy/drama] in the drama group and “My Flesh and Blood” in the documentary category.

“Station Agent,” a quirky drama about a lonely dwarf who moves into a small town’s abandoned train depot and is befriended two other loners, also earned writer Tom McCarthy the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.

“My Flesh and Blood,” which chronicles the lives of 11 special-needs children and the woman who cares for them, also garnered the Grand Jury Prize for directing for Jonathan Karsh.

The Grand Jury Prize for directing in the drama group went to Catherine Hardwicke for the wonderful “Thirteen,” Festival juries also gave a trophy for excellence in cinematography to Dana Kupper, Gordon Quinn and Peter Gilbert for the popular documentary, “Stevie,” and to Derek Cianfrance for the drama “Quattro Noza,” about illegal drag racing.

Among international competitors, festivalgoers granted the World Cinema Audience Award on “Whale Rider,” about a girl’s coming-of-age and her efforts to take her place as the leader of a male-dominated tribal village in New Zealand. A stunningly poetic and magnificent work, Whale Rider has just opened in New Zealand and will b e released in the US later this year through Newmarket Films. Sundance gave its Freedom of Expression Award for a documentary that educates audiences on a social issue, to “What I Want My Words To Do To You,” about a group of female prison inmates working through their problems in a writing workshop.

As for acting honours, Patricia Clarkson was given a jury prize for acting for roles in three movies, “Station Agent,” “Pieces of April,” and “All the Real Girls,” and Charles Busch was also handed a jury prize for acting in “Die Mommy Die.”

Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.

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